Berta Piñán- A House

Raise a house that would be like
a tree, like Daphne growing amongst
its branches, feel the seasons, the leaves
new after the winter, the first fruits
of the summer. A house that would be like a tree,
that survives the storm, clears
the hail, scares away the frozen winds
of time.

Raise a house that would be like
a river, navigable and light, changeable,
fleeting, to drink from its sources, to stop off
at its pools, to run with its streams. A house that would be
like a river, that sweeps away defeat,
pulls up the pain of the drying yards and carries it
with the current, downstream.

Raise a house that would be like
a world, cross the geographies of its passages,
mountains of stairs, the windows open,
the bridges, the roads. Sit down in front of the door
and see life walking past, a friend, a country,
a language, to greet them for a moment
when they go by.

Raise a house that puts on our
name, the personal touches that one day we get wrong,
a word, a face, the memory of the one
we loved,
and so, raise a house, only
in case you come back.

This poem comes from the same anthology by Berta Piñán as yesterday, Noches de Incienso (1985-2002) (Trea Poesía: Gijón, 2005): it originally comes from the collection Un Mes (2002).

Berta Piñán is giving me a lot to think about and I want to share it with you. As I mentioned yesterday the house is a symbol rich with meanings for the poet. Here she stretches the symbol until it is at breaking point. In the first stanza she wants a house like a tree. Daphne is the nymph that Apollo chased until she called out in desperation to her father, a river god, who turned her into a laurel tree. Apollo is the god of poetry and the crown of laurels is used to signify literary or musical achievement. Piñán does not spell any of this out, but it is not accidental. We are invited to think what kind of “house” this will be: resilient and strong, resistant to the weather.

The next house is the river, reminding us that Daphne’s father was a river god. Compared to the static prison of the tree as a house the river offers movement and power. The tree can resist the weather, but the river has the strength to sweep away defeat and destroy things in its path. It pulls up the pain of the drying yards: a sequera is a place where cereal used to be put to dry before it was milled. I did not know this word. I have a feeling it is local to Asturias because it appears in my Diccionariu, Asturianu-Castellanu, Xuan Xosé Sánchez Vicente ed. (Trabe: Uviéu, 2008) but not in my Spanish-English dictionary. There used to be three mills around our village in the mountains. It was a typical part of country life to take your cereal- commonly spelt- to the mill and have it ground to flour. Blanca Elena, one of my neighbours, remembers the mills from when she was a child, says that everyone knew which one gave short measure and which was an honest dealer. Now you go to the supermarket to buy flour. The fields are almost exclusively given over to pasture for cows and alfalfa and corn to feed them in the winter. Using the word sequera then is anachronistic. To suggest the river washing away the pain of the drying yards, therefore, works as a symbol on two levels: on the first level, there is the liberating force of water clearing away something that is about to be milled; on the second level, there is the sense that this clearing away is taking away a vestige of history.

In the third stanza the house has become the world. This is so grandiose an idea that it is inverted so that the world becomes a house where you can sit at the door and watch life go by. This is again a local touch. My friend Fernando built himself a house with a garden out the back where he could sit and enjoy the evening. This was puzzling to the people in his village: “Why would you want to sit at the back of the house?” they asked. “How are you going to know what is going on?”
In an Asturian village there is often a bench at the front of the house where people sit and stare at the traffic going by: no one wastes time with a garden, the back of the house is given over to a vegetable plot.

Up to this point we have spiralled outwards in layers of pantheism, from tree, to river, to world. The poem ends with a radical recentring of the idea of house. The house she says should be ourselves. The house becomes a memory machine: something that will preserve us when the day comes that we start to forget, start to get those personal touches wrong. Again there is a local reality underlying the global sense. The house I live in is Ca’ Candida. It is still known after the woman who lived in the house before Carmen bought it fifteen years ago. There is a conservatism in folk memory. In the Basque Country there are houses that have carried the same name for hundreds of years because the survival of the “house” was so important. Asturias is not quite the same but has its own unique culture that also feeds into the concept of the house that Berta Piñán is using here.

Unlike many other cultures, in Asturias the house definitely belongs to the woman. I know many men even now who moved to their wife’s village when they got married. Even if the house comes down on the man’s side of the family it may be “his” but there will be a woman who has emotional ownership. A spritely eighty year old woman comes down the road and says, “I’m just going to look at my house.”
“But isn’t that Ramón’s house?” I say to Carmen.
“Well, if it is Ramon’s house it is his mother’s, isn’t it? That’s just obvious,” she replies.

In everyday language it is understood that the house is the woman’s territory and that she controls what goes on in it and around it. My neighbour, for example, finds it entirely incomprehensible that I would work in the garden with Carmen planting flowers. “I look after the animals,” he says in puzzlement. “My wife does the garden.” He moved to his wife’s village when he got married more than forty years ago: people still see him as an outsider, even though his village is only four kilometres down the hill.

This means that Berta Piñán’s grounding symbol, the house, has a particular interest for women. We sense this from the beginning of the poem and the allusion to Daphne and, if we allow it to, the poem rounds the concept out towards the end.

These observations are not directly relevant to this poem. You can enjoy it without them, but I find that as I read Berta Piñán she enriches my understanding of the world around me. That is good poetry, isn’t it?

About Jason Preater

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